Going into the season as the defending champions, returning almost every key player, and giving their young talent another year to improve, the Boston Red Sox felt very good about their chances to defend their title in 2008.
We're just over halfway into the season, and it isn't the sea of injuries or the sudden Juggernaut brewing down in Tampa that concerns me most about the Sox's chances.
The main problems lie within their own internal roster, and they are the middle relief and the end of the batting order. These are two unusual issues for this team to have because of their success with both of these components for some time or another since 2004.
With Hideki Okajima clearly not capable of getting the job done like he did so brilliantly last season, the Red Sox are having to lean on Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen for the brunt of the workload as of late.
Terry Francona seems to be holding out hope for Okajima to return to last year's form, but Okajima just does not seem to have it anymore. Now that he has been scouted for a year, his unusual splitter-like breaking ball and deceptive movement is just not enough to fool batters, and he isn't going to blow anyone away with an 88 mile-per-hour soft-serve.
While Delcarmen has been solid this year, he just is not a set-up man at this point in his career. He could better serve as a seventh-inning man, platooning with someone like Javy Lopez.
Hansen, on the other hand, is still not major-league ready, and he could certainly use some time down in Pawtucket. He has occasional nasty stuff, but his control is a mess at times, and he needs some polishing up.
While they have arguably the best closer in the game, the Red Sox are just wasting Jonathan Papelbon's services by blowing leads before he gets into the game.
The other glaring need that seems to be tougher to immediately fix is the offense at the back of the lineup. Last year, the Red Sox had to suffer through a disgraceful season from Julio Lugo in the nine-hole. Now their problems are much worse than that.
While Lugo is still struggling, batting .263, he is not even the main problem. It has become more and more evident to every Boston fan that Jason Varitek is flat-out washed up.
Not to take away from all he does for the Boston pitching staff, but he is overmatched and, quite frankly, it is sad watching him waive aimlessly at fastballs.
Varitek brings intangibles to the Red Sox like no other player in MLB does, and moving him is of course not an option, but his struggles do not seem to be a temporary slump.
Every at-bat is becoming predictable: take a strike, take a flimsy cut at a ball on the outside corner, and end by chasing the high fastball at the shoulders.
And don't even get me started with Coco Crisp's .267 average to round out the "big three".
I have been preaching this huge weakness all year, but it was today's 2-1 loss to the Yankees that really convinced me that this could potentially keep the Red Sox from winning the World Series.
Down 2-1 in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and zero outs, everyone around me watching the game was getting excited. They were already looking towards the bottom of the ninth, where Papelbon would try to close it out.
But secretly, to myself, I was thinking, "Oh boy, here comes the heart of the order: Coco, Tek, and Lugo". And deep down, I was still feeling like pushing a run across would be a great feat.
The results were similar to my gut feeling, as two strikeouts sandwiched a useless flyout, quickly diminishing any thoughts of coming back in the ninth.
Fact of the matter is, with three batters at the end of the lineup who are basically expected to be completely unproductive, and poor middle-relief to get to Papelbon in the ninth inning, the Boston Red Sox will have a very tough time defending their title, or even win the AL East.
Rumors from the front office indicate that the Red Sox won't make any big moves and will hope these holes can fill themselves. But in the big leagues, it isn't very often pitchers can fix 88 mile-per-hour fastballs, and it isn't very often 36-year-old catchers increase their bat speed. I'm just saying...